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Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

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The genius of a novelist can be revealed by first-person narration, when an author displays the balls inherent in giving up his own omniscient third person and adopting the voice of his hero. The results range from uncannily believable, as in the works of Kazuo Ishiguro, to provokingly manipulative, as in Martin Amis’s last novel.

The narrating voice of Mohsin Hamid’s recent book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is at the uncanny end of the spectrum. It’s the most engaging new novel I’ve read since Never Let Me Go, and the most unsettling. 

The structure of the book calls to mind another Ishiguro novel, The Remains of the Day, in that an expedient is found to have a character tell a climactic story of his own life, which leads to another climax in the real time of the narration.

Sound complicated? But it’s beautifully simple: a Pakistani man called Changez sits down in a café in Lahore. He starts talking to a nervous, ominous American about his post-Princeton career at a valuation firm immediately before and after September 11, 2001.  

We read nothing except what Changez has to say about this time and the relatively unremarkable events in it that drove him to his present career in Pakistan. And the voice of Changez is a calm one; again recalling The Remains of the Day, it seeks to avoid hyperbole.

And yet the novel tapers to a sharp conclusion as unsettling as anything in more overblown genres, and the conflicted emotions of Changez are presented with picture perfect clarity.  

The reader believes in his love for the character of Erica while being aware of its opportunistic and almost predatory nature. We can believe Changez is fond of his sympathetic boss, while we remain aware Changez understands that boss – outsider though he also is – as a part of an unacceptable system.

I can’t imagine how anyone who enjoys literature could fail to enjoy this book. Don’t be scared off by a title suggesting it could be an apologia for terrorism or shrill anti-Americanism; it’s neither. Rather, it’s the specific and ‘first-hand’ account of one man who progresses through the American dream and reacts to it the only way he can.  

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is published by Bond Street Books and is available in Canada through Random House.

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